Religion, state, politics and society


The greatest threat to society and religion is not that a certain religious precept is being brought forward, but if it is being imposed in a totalitarian manner, writes Nicholas Chan.

To articulate the four domains as outlined in the title of this article may be a mouthful, but one can always observe how they are inextricably intertwined in the dominant issues that form the headlines today.

Take hudud, for example. It is a religious obligation (subjected to many interpretations of course), being politicised so that the state may enforce the code over society. There you go, the full cocktail of religion, state, politics and society.

One may also arrange the rendition a bit differently. Religion influences society’s views and demands on justice and order; hence, politicians will seize the opportunity to politicise and shape the debate to support (or resist) the state’s enactment and enforcement of the said penal and procedural code.

Even within an arguably democratised and secular setting like Malaysia, one can see that these four domains look to be inseparable. No doubt those championing political Islam would favour the interlocking of these domains. But even the secular proponents of human rights (which include freedom of religion and freedom of political participation) would find it difficult to argue a case against the stringing of these relationships.

The dilemma is that, if the democratic state is formed by the will and intent of society, then who is one to say that religion as a major part of society is to be denied from the political discourse – and, by extension, its position in the state?

The effects of imposing such a view can be seen in Kemalist Turkey, where even those donning headscarves – by their own will – were made to pay a hefty political, social and economic price.

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Until recently, headscarves were banned from all public spaces in Turkey, including courtrooms and universities, and those who violated such regulations were ejected from their positions. It was reported that as many as 240,000 women have been expelled from universities since the year 2000. Given those staggering numbers, the state was seen as anti-society, and whatever claims it had towards democracy was put to a severe test.

But when religion infringes upon the realms of politics and the state – increasingly so in Malaysia – it poses a problem to a multicultural society too. For example, the over-fixation of using Islamic vocabulary and justifications in state affairs, as is the case with the Sharia index, alienates and sometimes antagonises the non-Muslim communities.

The freedom of one group in pursuit of their religious convictions is often juxtaposed against the denial of such rights and dignity of the other. That amongst other reasons reinforces the whole notion of Malaysia having its own second or even third class citizens.

Looking at Kemalist Turkey and progressively Islamised Malaysia, it is clear that the resolution of such tricky issues does not lie in the binary option of having either a secular or theocratic state. What we need is to relook at the relationship among religion, state, politics and society.

A totalitarian perspective whereby the state either entirely absorbs religion or abhors it is non-constructive at best and incendiary at worst. The support behind such reasoning is that people often failed to recognise the distinction between politics and state, as well as state and religion.

At this point, it is worth visiting Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s enlightening and convincing book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (Harvard University Press, 2010). In this thesis, Professor An-Na’im argues that as a Muslim, a secular state is needed for him to realise his religious convictions. But this secular state is not one modelled after Kemalist Turkey, nor the one practised in Malaysia, as one shall see.

He puts forward the importance of the separation of the state and religion, because the state is about control and state control is bad for religion as people are then not free to follow their own convictions. But understanding the inseparable roles played by religion in society and politics, the state must allocate room for such dynamics to grow organically, as long as it does not threaten the social order and the rights of others.

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Professor An-Na’im further states that an individual or a party can in fact argue his/her case for an Islamic state but such a cause must be articulated and debated based on civic reason, not only within the Muslim community but with the non-Muslims as well. The state will adopt these causes if it passes constitutional, legal and democratic checks but the state shall never be an Islamic state.

It can never be one because modern day contexts and the nature of the state make it impossible to be. In fact, Islamic scholars questioned the existence of any other Islamic states after the Prophet and the first four Caliphs.

The reality is that postcolonial modern nation-states were modelled after the European model of territorial states. Therefore, these states must adhere to the principles of constitutionalism, human rights and modern citizenship that are based on civic reasoning lest the state disintegrates and falls into perpetual chaos as is the case in the Middle East now.

That aside, the state can never truly serve a religious purpose because the state is about power and control, Professor An-Na’im stresses. The state is itself political and hence giving the state control of religion means religion is subjugated under the interests of the actors and agents in control of the state. In other words, the divinity is humanised.

That is why it makes the distinction between state and politics as well as state and religion the more important. It not only preserves the wellbeing of the society, but also the integrity of the religion.

Under the tenets of the separation of state and politics, political Islam in Malaysia, for example, will be allowed and could even flourish. But whatever causes the Islamists are championing, they have to be based on civic reason as well as conforming to the general principles of constitutionalism, human rights and modern citizenship. In other words, the proposal to introduce hudud into our legal system must be open for debate at all levels of society, at all levels of intellect and by all membership of the state.

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This is where the state comes in to moderate the discourse and make sure such requirements are met. Therefore, by virtue of its powerful position to dictate such discourses, it has to be secular.

The state has to keep a distance from religion so that society can fully embrace it, and through political, legal and constitutional means, argue for the religious wellbeing of society. If not, the discourse will be impaired, and inevitably certain segments of society will be victimised, including Muslims themselves while debating hudud.
Pas has committed no sins for wanting to introduce hudud laws in Kelantan, but the excuse that non-Muslims should stay out of the discussion violates society’s right to political discourse.

The government (not the governing party) looks to be facing difficulty in outlining its position because it is expected to also be a religious authority. It is a paradoxical position to be in because the state enjoys absolute power but the debate now is open to a diversity of opinions.

The best way to reconcile between an absolute entity and the diversity of possible outcomes is to separate them. The state cannot dictate how and where the debate should go, as long as it does not violate the constitution and threaten the peace and security of society.

It is futile and wrong to try and separate religion, politics and society, but it is also wrong to let the state exercise total control over religion, politics and society. Such roles have to be negotiated and renegotiated at all times.

The greatest threat to society and religion is not that a certain religious precept is being brought forward, but if it is being imposed in a totalitarian manner.

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